Iraq watchers are debating the fallout from another lethal attack on US forces, probably involving an Iran-backed militia. That assumption is based on its similarity to dozens of other incidents.
We have no choice but to strengthen our efforts to root out the forces of terror
Iraqi President Barham Salih
But this attack is significant for several reasons.
Firstly, it was launched inside the semi-autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq, an area long considered isolated from the militia violence and terrorism that has haunted much of the country since 2003.
Previous attacks often took place in remote areas where US-led Coalition forces were assisting the Iraqi army in the fight against ISIS.
By contrast, a modern international airport in Erbil, often frequented by foreign visitors, has had windows shattered and some of the rockets fell in public areas, wounding civilians.
And while Coalition forces at the vast Baghdad International Airport complex have been targets in the past, this is the first time Kurdish civilians were casualties.
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Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Erbil in March, and is due to leave the country from the very airport that was damaged.
The attack is also causing consternation because a contractor at the base was killed.
This is not a first – US nationals died on December 27, 2019, and March 12, 2020, in Kirkuk and Anbar respectively. But attacks of this severity are rare and have led to retaliatory US air strikes, although the foreign national killed in this instance is not American.
The December 2019 strike nearly led to war in January 2020, when the US killed Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, who was advising Iran-backed groups in Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces militia organisation.
The PMF is an umbrella group composed of mostly Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militias who are part of Iraq’s armed forces.
How do we know Iran might be linked to the attack?
Points of evidence suggest Iranian involvement, at least indirectly.
For example, pro-Iranian media channels in Iraq such as Sabreen news are often first to report the incidents, and groups claiming responsibility often use the same terminology as official Iran-backed groups such as Kataib Hezbollah, which threaten violence and later deny involvement.
Despite their denials, those groups often praise such attacks, particularly those against US forces.
Most of the groups, including Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl Al Haq – which has a small political party in parliament – had publicly worked with Suleimani.
Particularly damning in this instance, Kurdish intelligence services said, is the discovery of unexploded Iranian Fajr-1 107mm rockets near the site from where the attack was launched.
The weapons were found inside a launch platform, a modified pickup truck – a favoured method of delivering the weapons among Iran-backed PMF groups, which use truck-mounted rockets as a kind of mobile artillery.
What was the response of the Iraqi government?
Iraq’s government was quick to respond to the attack by launching a joint investigation with the Kurdish government to identify the perpetrators. Barham Salih, Iraq’s President, described the attack as a terrorist act that represented a dangerous escalation.
We have no choice but to strengthen our efforts to root out the forces of terror and the attempts to plunge the country into chaos, he said on Twitter.
Mr Salih said Iraq now faces a battle between state sovereignty and terrorism. Masrour Barzani, Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, also condemned what he called a terrorist attack.
I urge all Kurdistanis to remain calm, he said on Twitter.
Nechirvan Barzani, the KRG President, called on the UN to work to eliminate threats against civilians in the region.
We call on the UN Security Council to take this attack very seriously and to work on eliminating the targeting of civilians in the Kurdistan region by urging the Iraqi government to implement Article 140 of the constitution, he said.
Article 140 stated that a referendum would be held in 2007 to determine whether the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk and other disputed territories would become part of the Kurdistan Region. It has not yet been ratified.
Have there been any attacks before on Erbil airport?
In September, a volley of rockets fired by Iran-backed militias targeted the same base. US officials at the time expressed concern that the militias were using larger rockets than before. That attack originated from Sheikh Amir, a small village in Nineveh governorate that was under the control of an Iran-backed militia.
Six rockets were fired at the airport and base, and the incident was later claimed by the PMF.
Four rockets landed at the edge of the airport compound and two did not explode – Iran typically uses unguided rockets for shorter-range attacks.
Could there be a conflict?
The US has condemned the attack and said it would work with the Iraqi government to find the perpetrators. This is in stark contrast to Donald Trump’s approach, which advocated retaliatory strikes against the militias to deter further violence.
The problem with a potential investigation is that many of the PMF groups, and their probable front organisations, are part of a powerful network of political parties in Iraq’s parliament. Investigations can, therefore, be blocked, or stopped before they provoke a dangerous stand-off between the Iraqi state and its armed forces, and the quasi-state Iran-backed groups.
If an investigation does find perpetrators who are found to be backed by Tehran, a diplomatic crisis between Washington and Baghdad is likely, because the US will pressure Iraq to hold the individuals to account.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi will struggle to fulfil such a request.
The attacks last September are a case in point. He pledged in a meeting with top diplomats to protect foreign missions and limit possession of weapons to state forces. That promise followed a US threat to close down its embassy, jeopardising Washington’s military and economic support for Iraq.
The US ultimately kept the embassy in place, but Mr Al Kadhimi has had little luck controlling the militias.